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The quiet general: Ashfaq Pervez Kayani

The man in control of Pakistan’s powerful army is an old warhorse known best for averting an Indo-Pak war in 2001-02, writes Afzal Khan.
By Afzal Khan | None, Islamabad
UPDATED ON DEC 08, 2007 02:45 AM IST

For eight years, General Pervez Musharraf monopolised the limelight on the world stage, keeping his generals out of public sight in sharp contrast to his military predecessors. When last week, he nervously passed on the symbolic army baton to his successor at a special ceremony, the world knew very little about the man who now occupies his country’s most powerful office.

While Musharraf’s departure from the army on November 28 had a touch of royalty, the new man formally took over next day in a simple ceremony and immediately set about his official work. That day he attended another gala pageant at the Presidency where Musharraf took oath as civilian president for five more years. As the President reiterated profuse adulation for the man, he offered only a serene confident expression that once again accentuated the sharp personality comparison between the two.

Man behind the uniform

Even otherwise, poker-faced General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, (55), has always kept a low public profile and is routinely described as a demure, professional soldier. Coming from a relatively humbler origin as son of a JCO, Kayani has always conducted himself with quiet dignity, composure and intense sense of personal pride. General Kayani not only excels in professional military matters and affairs of internal and external security, but also belongs to a rare breed of military officers who have a sound intellectual base. He has never been very ambitious nor ever sought any particular promotion. He is a chain smoker with a tendency to mumble, but he speaks to Musharraf in a way few other senior officers would dare.

Trusted by all

He has the rare distinction of winning the confidence of his boss and also appealing to the Pentagon and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto whom he served as deputy military secretary in the early 1990s. During his recent visit to Islamabad last week, US Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, created a stir by meeting Kayani thrice in a day, before and after his talks with Musharraf. The Americans deeply appreciate his commitment and firm handling of anti-terrorism operation in the troubled Waziristan as chief of Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) since October 2004.

To the Indians, his association with ISI may evoke some suspicion. But his counterparts in the Indian army would recall his role as the director general of military operations in 2001-02 when his expertise is said to have helped Pakistan avoid a disastrous confrontation with India. As ISI chief, he diverted the agency’s focus away from Pakistan’s eastern borders with India to combat threat of militancy and terrorism along frontiers with Afghanistan.

Musharraf submitted to enormous domestic and international pressure to take off the uniform he once described as his “second skin”. The issue was clinched at a meeting of army top brass on October 2, four days before his election. The generals reportedly urged him to name a successor.

“You may pick anybody and we will accept it,” an insider quoted one general as telling Musharraf. When he sought at least another year, they said no.

“It was the first time in eight years that the boss had to accept from the generals something unpalatable,” says a presidential aide. Kayani was the senior-most general who was expected to be elevated to the ceremonial post of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

The judicial crisis that erupted after Musharraf’s fateful encounter on March 9 with Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry when he sacked him in the presence of top military aides, including Kayani, proved a turning point in their mutual ties. Kayani kept a discreet silence during that meeting and later declined to join other generals when they filed sleazy affidavits against Iftikhar in the Supreme Court. Instead, he took up a crucial assignment for contacts with Benazir Bhutto that ultimately facilitated Musharraf’s election on October 6 and a blanket indemnity to Bhutto on corruption cases.

Challenges ahead

As army chief Kayani’s foremost priority would be to restore its public image that is at an all time low because of its deep involvement in politics. He has to bolster its morale as well which has been seriously undermined by the civil strife in Waziristan.

As army chief, he has vowed to keep the institution away from current political turmoil and expects Musharraf not to use it against its own people.

He is a loyalist, a trait he inherited from his proud clan, the Ghakhars of which Kayani are a sub-caste. One of his ancestors sacrificed six sons while keeping his pledge to the fleeing Mughal emperor Humayun that he would pin down his enemy Sher Shah Suri until Humayun returned with reinforcement from Afghanistan and Central Asia. Sher Shah died fighting Ghakhar rebels and is buried in Rohtas, about 10 km from Gen. Kayani’s ancestral village Mangat. Emperor Babar in his autobiography advised his heirs never to cross swords with this clan.

His community respects him for integrity and honesty that prevents him from extending or seeking any favour for them. He married late to a cousin and has two children, a daughter and a son, studying in Pakistan. Family friends describe him as a loving, affectionate and caring father and husband, despite his very reserved demeanour in public.

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